Belting’s “Shadows”: From Dante to Visual Arts
Shadows imitate but also contradict the body since they link, simultaneously, presence and absence. A real object can cast shadows, whereas shadows cannot.
Last month, on the 6th of April, the Art History Department of La Sapienza University (Rome, Italy) hosted one of the most influential art historians of the past and current century, Hans Belting. In this lecture, Belting concentrated on the analysis of the relation between image and shadow and between shadow and body.
Shadows imitate but also contradict the body since they link, simultaneously, presence and absence. A real object can cast shadows, whereas shadows cannot. In his Divina Commedia, Dante Alighieri talks to shadows (the damned) thinking they are concrete bodies. On mount Purgatory, Dante even tries to embrace a shadow but fails. He experiences this confusion because, even though their bodies have turned into insubstantial shadows, the damned preserve the appearance they had when they were alive. Actually, the main difference between shadows and Dante’s shadows, is that these ghosts have faces and retain their earthly look. For this reason Dante is able to recognize them. They represent bodies in every aspect, except that they are not bodies. The damned find themselves in a third stage between life and death, which is exactly a shadow.
The presence of those dead bodies, therefore, is not real but iconic, because it manifests an absence. This interesting contradiction belongs to both shadows and images. Like photography, the shadow indicates that there is a body, although it is not physically there anymore. Being inextricably connected to a body, shadows can change very quickly: from this derives the need for fixing images. According to Pliny, the origin of painting was caused by this need. Fixing images makes our memories permanent, such as in Pliny’s story of the Corinthian young woman that traces the contours of her lover’s shadow on the wall while he sleeps, before he leaves to war, as a way to have him close even when he is faraway. Making a leap forward, the Danish painter Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, in his A Sailor taking Leave of his Girlfriend (1840), represents a similar theme in a different way. In this painting, the sailor says goodbye to his lover and their two shadows merge symbolically before the two lovers’ part.
This connection between image and memory is also examined by Dante, who introduces images of memory every time he meets a (dead) friend or fellow citizen. Images are visible yet immaterial since they are all mental images. This concept seems to anticipate the function of the photographs of the deceased. Dead people can seem alive both in another time and in another place through pictures. This is a way to fight against absence. In the Inferno, the “shadows” are condemned to suffer as if they were bodies. They keep their human feelings and affects, so they never break free from what they were and what they did in life.
Dante’s Divina Commedia had a strong influence on the visual culture of his time, not only on the artists that illustrated his book and on church art, but also on the evolution of painting in general. As a matter of fact, Dante seems to have influenced the representation of shadows by painters of his period. Giotto‘s school started to represent shadows on the bodies, as a way to model them. These bodies though did not cast shadows, as can be seen for instance in the Baroncelli Chapel in Santa Croce, attributed to Taddeo Gaddi. Moreover, Cennino Cennini is silent about cast shadows, although he gives a detailed description about Giotto’s technique.
It seemed that shadows belonged to bodies without projecting outside of them. It was in the 15th century, thanks to Masaccio‘s generation, that cast shadows were invented. In Masaccio’s Saint Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow, in the Brancacci Chapel (Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence), not only does Peter cast his shadow, as one expects from the title, but the architecture also does. Moreover, the position of the real window in the chapel makes it seem that these shadows are natural shadows. The image becomes an extension of the visitor’s space. This confluence lead to the more extreme version in Masaccio’s Trinity, in Santa Maria Novella. The altar was placed before the fresco as if it was a real chapel. It can be said, then, that cast shadows were born in the Quattrocento, and, unsurprisingly, this was the era of the invention of mathematical perspective. Thanks to this invention, the barrier between art and reality was torn down. The evolution of cast shadows went on with no particular developments until the 17th century, when they became an experiment in deception and a practice to impress.